Happy Fiction Friday, O readers! My archives of story have come to my rescue, and yours as well, since it has been a very busy day and I have not had a lot of time to think story-like thoughts. So I dug up this little gem (if I do say so myself), the beginning of a retelling of a lesser-known tale by Hans Christian Andersen.
"The Most Incredible Thing" is a lovely and charming story about the triumph of the human spirit, as expressed in art, over brute force and destructiveness. But as beautiful as I find it, I do have a bit of a problem with it. You see, it's a story about a contest where the winner gets the Princess and half her father's kingdom, and the Princess herself... well, she doesn't get much say in the matter. Or much to say at all.
So I decided to give her one, as I did with "The true knight" from a couple weeks back, and as I have another story in the works to do, entitled "Only One". These could almost be their own collection, couldn't they? Something to think about. In any case, please enjoy this, the first installment of my version of "The Most Incredible Thing"!
Whosoever could do the most incredible thing was to have the King's daughter and half of his kingdom.
"For of course," said Princess Alvida, leaning on her high windowsill with her golden hair streaming across her shoulders, watching the men and boys in the street below all practicing what they thought might be their own most incredible thing, "as far as my father is concerned, I have no need of a say in the matter. I am expected only to sit on my throne like a waxwork at the judging of the wonders, and nod my head like a puppet to whichever man the judges choose, and stand still as a statue at the altar on my wedding day."
Turning away from the window and facing the mirror across the room, the Princess spread her skirts of deepest blue, matching both her eyes and the sapphires ornamenting her everyday coronet, and curtsied low to her reflection with a smile, receiving its politest bow in return.
"Expectations," she said as she straightened, tucking a loose end of hair more neatly into its braided crown, "are such dangerous things."
In the mirror, her blue-clad reflection nodded firmly.
At Master Paulson's shop in the city, home to the finest clockmakers in all the world (if his workmen did say so themselves), Journeyman Rune bent his head over a delicate matter of movement. The wooden figures under his hands, the Muses who had guided artists in the ancient myths, stood stolid and lifeless at the moment, but when he was finished, they would advance in stately procession to offer their blessing at the hour of nine.
Reverently he stroked the lyre in the hands of one faintly smiling goddess, the writing tablet held by another, the globe of the heavens cradled by a third. "It truly is the most incredible thing," he murmured, sitting back to ease his shoulders. "Alvar outdoes himself further every day. Does he not, Mistress Kathrine?" he appealed to Master Paulson's good wife, who had come into the shop to bring the journeymen and apprentices their tea, and to do a bit of tidying up.
"Indeed he does, and so do you," said Mistress Kathrine as she swept up the shavings from the floor with firm strokes of her broom. "Each of the little ladies different, as though they came from all the corners of the world, and yet each as beautiful as the next, and as graceful, too, with your gears and levers inside them. And with the wood itself used for the skin of their faces and hands." She laughed as she stroked her own hand down the silky-smooth wood of the broomstick. "Who would ever have thought that people came in as many colors as our Alvar has used to carve them?"
"Certainly not I." Rune carefully lifted the figure of Clio, Muse of History, to set her in her place amongst her sisters. "But then, I've never been further from my father's farm than this very shop."
"No more you have, and no more you'll have any need to do, not until the day of the contest, that is." Mistress Kathrine waited until Rune's hands were free before patting his shoulder. "It's to the palace you'll go then, and win the Princess and half the kingdom with your most incredible clock, just as it all ought to be."
"Shall I, Mistress?" Rune twisted to look up into Mistress Kathrine's face with a rueful smile. "Ought I? The clock itself I have surely made, and excellent time it keeps, and too, I have made the workings which bring forth the figures that represent the hours, each at their proper time, to make their bows and curtsies to the world. But those figures are not mine. Such carvings I could never do. And what will the children, and their elders, remember best about this most incredible clock? Will it not be the beautiful stories told to them by the carved figures—carved not by me, but by our good friend Alvar?"
"Would they remember the stories half as well if those carvings stood silent on a shelf, as still as the statues they are?" Mistress Kathrine countered. "Or will it not fix such things in their minds all the better when the tiny folk dance and move by the means of your clockwork, when they all but come to life at the chiming of their proper hour? You and Alvar have made this wonder between you, Rune, for neither could have done it without the other." The good woman smiled as though she knew a secret. "And that, to my mind, is the most incredible thing already."
Rune had opened his mouth to reply to this when the bell jangled over the door, and in stepped the very Alvar they had been discussing, tucking a scrap of his golden hair further up under his flat-brimmed cap. "Good morning, Mistress Kathrine," he said jauntily, sweeping that lady a bow as grand as any courtier, "and when will you leave old Paulson behind and run away with me to distant shores?"
"Flatterer!" Mistress Kathrine laughed and swatted at Alvar's hand with her broomstick. "Get away with you, trying to wheedle an old woman that way!"
"Old woman?" Alvar peered about the shop. "I see no old woman here. Rune, do you see an old woman?"
"I do not," Rune answered promptly, knowing this game from of old. "Only the loveliest lady in all of Christendom, and my good and faithful friend, with whom I hope to create the most incredible thing and win the contest." He sighed. "Though I cannot dare to hope that a Princess, whom rumor says is as wise as she is beautiful, would look upon someone like me with anything other than bare tolerance."
"You might be surprised how a Princess would look at you, old friend." Alvar pulled up his stool and took his seat. "But we shall see. So, how goes the work today?"